April 30, 2005

three cheers for Toni!

Yay for Toni!!!

That is all.

Well, okay, not quite all.

Yippee too!

(And I look forward to reading and thoroughly enjoying all three books.)

So cool when a talented friend gets validation in such a tangible form.

Posted by Tamar at 01:24 PM | TrackBack

April 27, 2005

the decision

I thought we'd do a fact-finding mission, that it would be clear cut and logical, that we'd know whether to move to New York or to stay put in Los Angeles. Ha. Instead it's gut-level, emotional, and risky as hell.

Yes, we've decided to move. Or rather, as Dan says, the decision has somehow been made for us. We move as if compelled, as if a powerful magnet emanates from the Tristate area and we're nothing more than a handful of iron filings, a scattering of metallic bits, and so we fly, yanked back home. Someone finally turned on the magnet full force, that's all. Will it work out? Is this the right decision (non-decision), will fate or instinct, or, hell, the pseudo-mystical made-up Force be with us or will we look back and say "What were we THINKING???"

Sometimes decisions can be both wise and foolish, positive and negative, difficult and right, tangled and clear. Like buying our current house. Great investment but not the most peaceful place to live. Now we sell that investment and use the equity to cushion our journey east where we'll hope and work toward happiness. Sell a house, buy a life change.

You live your life, you make your choices. It makes logical sense to seek security, to settle down. For us, that means staying put. But if you're miserable in that relative (because nothing's certain) stability? What then?

What matters to me at this point in my life? What matters to Dan? Not one thing, obviously; you can't single out any specific element, point to it and say, "This. This is it and nothing else is important." But some things do matter more than others. And though working toward future (and present) comfort certainly is on that list, it turns out a sense of community, geographical proximity to people we love, that may matter more. The chance for Dan to become someone new, to renew and redefine his career, that too. Me too, I think – not so much career right now but the chance rethink myself, to re-present myself. In truth, we change gradually over time, growing into ourselves (if we're lucky). But often if we stay in the same environment, that change remains invisible to other people and therefore sometimes to ourselves. They and we still define us by who we've been. But if you shift the locale, the milieu, you can seem to become someone new in a moment. It's like when you lose weight. Someone who sees you every single day may not note the half pound there, the pound and a half there, but to someone who sees you once a month or once a year, the transformation will be startlingly obvious.

But that's not it, not the reason for the move, not to change ourselves or become ourselves, only maybe it is a bit. It's more about happiness and where and how you can find it. Can you chase happiness? Is it like the rainbow's end, always shifting away, or is it indeed tangible and concrete? Right now I think the latter. Maybe not happiness per se, because who can have a life without bumps and bruises? But an overall feeling of rightness instead of wrongness, I do think you can know that, find that.

Is this crazy? We sell our house here this summer, become renters there by fall and take a chance that we'll be able to buy again at some unknown point in the future. Dan invests in a new network of potential employers. I find my way – somehow, some as yet undetermined niche – back into the working world because it is indeed time to become a two income family again and especially if – no, when – we move and Dan's work situations become more tenuous for a short or even long while. My share of work may need to be part time or at least involve a goodly amount of telecommuting because I must still be primary caregiver to a child who still very much needs a parent's care. A child, by the way, who very much wants to make this move "So I can see Hannah and Isaiah all the time and visit my grandparents whenever I want." (Hannah and Isaiah are my college roommate's children, and they live within minutes of our town-to-be. The kids got along, you might say.) He seems completely unfazed by this enormous upheaval.

I should trust and emulate his attitude, I think. Instead I'm alternately thrilled and terrified with a goodly dose of stunned, "It's a dream, right? I'll wake up soon and be disappointed that nothing's different, right?" But no, this doesn’t at all feel like a dream. It feels like a surprising left turn, taking us off the map of the known, and maybe if I squint real hard I can make out the vague outline of what lies ahead, but maybe that's just a mirage. I can't be sure, but the only way to know is to move ahead.

So we will. Back to slush in February and the miraculous spread of green in April, back to mosquito-laden summers and a beautiful, majestic, thrilling city and the towns that surround it, inevitably memorizing the commuter train schedule (Damian called it the computer train at first and then simply said it was boring and far too slow). Also inevitably discovering inconveniences and annoyances and drawbacks to our new life (no fresh Fuyu persimmons at the farmer's market in January (no farmer's market in January)) but also embarking on this astonishing adventure, returning home to an environment that feels so right and is both familiar and new. We've never been parents there, never been fully adult there, I've never lived outside the city, I've never been a writer there or driven a car there (not until this trip, that is). Add in career questions and so many other unknowns and wow. Just wow.

Sometimes maybe it's good and right to shake things up, to toss the elements of your life up in the air like so much confetti and then watch it drift back down to earth in a new, unpredictable pattern.

We're going to find out. And soon.


Posted by Tamar at 09:21 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

April 26, 2005

back in LA

We got back to LA this evening. I'm exhausted. What a full trip, and utterly unlike going for a visit. This was a trip with intent, which adds a layer of stress and excitement.

We discovered the lay of the land, more or less, and it wasn't what we'd hoped but wasn't exactly what we'd feared either. We made a decision, or at least we think we did. I'll post more tomorrow when I'm less tired.

Posted by Tamar at 08:32 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 23, 2005

dog days

written Monday April 18th:

I'm sitting on a bench in a small gated playground on Carmine Street in the West Village. Enclosed, safe, so pleasant. Damian plays nearby, seems relaxed. I love New York.

Dan said on the the commuter train this morning that what's strange is how normal it feels to be here. And it does. Our new to-be life? Or just playing out a fantasy alternate reality? The only way to know is to dive in.

Damian is fascinated with all the below-ground basement storage docks here that so often open onto the street. As we walked, we saw a man standing on the steps of one; his torso was sidewalk-level, he looked like half a man. He held a heavy box of wine bottles. As Damian gazed into the cavern, the man smiled at him. "Want to help?"

Further on down the street, we approached a woman walking her tiny dog. "Want to say hi to Jake? He's very nice." Damian tentatively said, "Hi." From a distance. Cautious. The woman laughed. I encouraged him to pat the dog, and as he did, the woman chatted about how soft Jake's fur was. Damian concurred.

Half a block on. A big dog lay panting on a blanket, an older Italian man sat on a folding chair next to him. Another man, his hair black and sleek, encouraged Damian to approach and pat the dog. Damian did so readily, and as Damian smiled at the big animal, the man contemplated the dog. "He's a Doberman/Rottweiler mix," he said, "but sweet as can be." Both breeds, of course, have a nasty reputation. Undeserved, the man said. It's all about the owner. Much like this city, I think. It has the potential for aggression but at its core is a great sweetness. Especially to children, it seems.

I'm glad to be here right now.

Posted by Tamar at 08:32 PM | TrackBack

April 13, 2005

more to say soon

First: Been sick with the flu two whole weeks. Finally feel somewhat better yesterday and today (days 15 and 16, respectively). Going on a plane Friday. Imperative that I feel better by then, if only so the entire planeload of people don't give me dirty looks every time I have a coughing fit.

Second: Been sending Damian to school with Benedryl in his system. Result: no scratching. Instead, he's been one spaced out little dude. So yesterday on the teacher's advice we sent him to school with the Benedryl tablet in an envelope in his backpack instead of in his digestive system. He apparently started itching two hours into class, took the pill, felt better, and didn't space out till it was goodbye time. (It's a 3 1/2 hour class.) Better. Not fantastic, but better. One more day of school, then off to New York and away from whatever allergen is causing this.

Third: Did I mention? Going to New York Friday. We shall see what we shall see. Will try to post from the road. May even succeed.

Fourth: Will I ever stop writing in staccato partial sentences with no "I"? Perhaps. Will find out later.

Until then.

Posted by Tamar at 11:43 PM | TrackBack

April 07, 2005

itchy and scratchy

This past month has not been good to Damian. First came the flu. A week and a half of fevered misery, curled up on the couch on a parent's lap. Then he had a respite, a few days to go see Robots and eat out with Mommy and frolic in a toy store. Then, boom, the stomach bug hit with cramps and all the other not-pretty aspects thereof. Then, finally, better?

You'd think.

He went back to school last Friday. Had a great day but, um, itched. We gave him a bath Friday night (it had been a while, due to illness), figured that would fix the problem. Saw some scratching over the weekend, not a lot, but just in case, I gave him an oatmeal bath Sunday night, bought special gentle non-irritating, non-drying liquid soap with aloe and other good stuff, used that too. Used A&D ointment. Monday, I saw lots of scratching. Red spots that came and went all over his body (and face). Welts that came and went too. Gave him another oatmeal bath. Seemed to help. Skipped Tuesday but yesterday (Wednesday) seemed particularly itchy, so in he went for another oatmeal bath.

After last night's bath, I slathered him with vitamin E cream and aquafor and then watched him particularly closely. Not a single scratch. All evening, all night, all morning too. All the way through to his midmorning school dropoff. Problem solved?

When I went to pick him up from school, I could see him through the fence. Scratching. When he got close to me, I saw. Red blotches on his face and belly again.

I finally did what I guess I should have done days ago. I called the pediatrician's office. The nurse confirmed what I was beginning to suspect. Looks like an allergy. To what? Who knows? But right now it sure looks like it's something at school.


This is going to be hard to track down. If they're even willing. I have no idea where the law lies in this regard, though I certainly know where common decency lies. If a kid is in extreme discomfort throughout the school day, you have to do something, don’t you? If you can figure it out, that is. But what if it's something in the air, the result of some work done over break? Or what if it's a cleaning solvent residue, maybe they changed their brand but the new one is a district-wide purchase? If the culprit is at school and they can't fix it, then what?

This could get complicated. My poor kid.

Posted by Tamar at 09:30 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 03, 2005

de facto segregation

Still sick but I have a lot of thoughts floating around in my fevered brain and I'd like to write down at least a few before I lose them all. Currently uppermost:

I read two articles back to back yesterday that seemed to fit together hand in glove. First, today's New York Times has an article about Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. It caught my eye because we'd considered Maplewood as one of the landing spots for our theoretical, hypothetical and completely uncertain move east. Anyway. Schools there have a great reputation. The high school gets good test scores, sends over 90% of its graduates to college, and so on and so forth. And this is a liberal town, known especially for its racial diversity. And the high school is in fact diverse: 58% of the kids are black, 35% are white, with droplets of Hispanics and Asians filling out the rest. (An aside: why is it that Hispanics and Asians have so little presence in Jersey suburbs?) But apparently that diversity doesn't show up in the classroom:

Though the school is majority black, white students make up the bulk of the advanced classes, while black students far outnumber whites in lower-level classes, statistics show.

"It's kind of sad," said Ugochi Opara, a senior who is president of the student council. "You can tell right away, just by looking into a classroom, what level it is."

Kind of sad? Yeah, you could say that. Apparently this so-liberal so-racially integrated town has a few blind spots. They divide kids into four levels, theoretically by ability, but it sounds like parent bullying and pleading have some effect:

The superintendent of the district, Peter P. Horoschak, acknowledged that there were, in a sense, two Columbias. The de facto segregation is most visible at the extremes. Statistics for this year show that while a Level 5 math class, the highest, had 79 percent white students, a Level 2 math class, the lowest, had 88 percent black students. Levels 3 and 4 tend to be more mixed, though a school board member, Mila M. Jasey, said, "Some white parents tell me that they know their kid belongs in a Level 3 class but they don't want them to be the only white kid in the class."

Though parents and students are granted some input, students are supposed to be placed in levels primarily based on grades and test scores. Many black students complain that they are unfairly relegated to the lower levels and unable to move up.

Kind of sad, yeah, you could say that.

Even though Jeffrey Gettleman, the Times reporter, is writing about the high school, it sounds like the divide runs deeper in this particular town. I read a long discussion in the Maplewood-South Orange forum about what had sounded like a wonderful, progressive "demonstration" school they've set up, partly to address the de facto segregation in a town where property values affect the student population of any given elementary school (more expensive houses usually means more white kids in that school). This is a magnet-style school, drawing children from the local area (primarily black kids) as well as kids from other Maplewood districts because their parents like the sound of the school. Well, hell, after reading about it online, I like the sound of the school too. But. According to a few people on this thread, guess what? Nearly all the kids in the demonstration part of the school, ie, the project-based, multi-age cluster hands-on teaching part, are, can you guess? Yeah, mostly white. And the kids in the regular neighborhood school part? Mostly not. Why? Probably because if a parent is going to send her child to a particular school because of a particular philosophy, she's going to do her damnedest to make sure he gets into the progressive classroom. And you can't blame the parents, or the school for accommodating them. But you can blame the school, I think, for not then saying, "gee, this is a popular program. Let's enlarge it to make sure we can offer it to the disadvantaged neighborhood kids." Seems to me that classroom segregation within a larger racially mixed school environment is actually worse than a school with a single racial makeup. Because this teaches that kids with different color skin have and deserve different levels of education from each other, that some are therefore inherently better or smarter or some other crap. And it exposes children to each other in such a glancing, sideways way, they'll only learn to think of each other as Other, never making friends across that divide.

(A note to cover my ass here: this is all purely from reading the forum -- I have never personally visited the school.)

Back to the high school: What if you could remove the parental persuasion factor from the decision on which child gets a higher level of educational challenge? You'd be left with grades and test scores, right? Which are objective, right?

Which leads me to the other article, F for Assessment, in Edutopia Magazine (found via this Kos post). W. James Popham cogently attacks those very test scores that the school is theoretically supposed to use to differentiate children.

For the last four decades, students' scores on standardized tests have increasingly been regarded as the most meaningful evidence for evaluating U.S. schools. Most Americans, indeed, believe students' standardized test performances are the only legitimate indicator of a school's instructional effectiveness. Yet, although test-based evaluations of schools seem to occur almost as often as fire drills, in most instances these evaluations are inaccurate. That's because the standardized tests employed are flat-out wrong.

What does he mean? Well, among other things:

Because of the need for nationally standardized achievement tests to provide fine-grained, percentile-by-percentile comparisons, it is imperative that these tests produce a considerable degree of score-spread -- in other words, plenty of differences among test takers' scores. So producing score-spread often preoccupies those who construct standardized achievement tests.

Statistically, a question that creates the most score-spread on standardized achievement tests is one that only about half the students answer correctly. Over the years, developers of standardized achievement tests have learned that if they can link students' success on a question to students' socioeconomic status (SES), then that item is usually answered correctly by about half of the test takers. If an item is answered correctly more often by students at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale than by lower-SES kids, that question will provide plenty of score-spread. After all, SES is a delightfully spread-out variable and one that isn't quickly altered. As a result, in today's nationally standardized achievement tests, there are many SES-linked items.

Unfortunately, this kind of test tends to measure not what students have been taught in school but what they bring to school. That's the reason there's such a strong relationship between a school's standardized-test scores and the economic and social makeup of that school's student body. As a consequence, most nationally standardized achievement tests end up being instructionally insensitive. That is, they're unable to detect improved instruction in a school even when it has definitely taken place. Because of this insensitivity, when students' scores on such tests are used to evaluate a school's instructional performance, that evaluation usually misses the mark.

Socioeconomic status. Right. That'll really help the kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, won't it? And if you start to use those very tests to choose the kids who then get more high level teaching? You're going to continue segregation, sure as a winter night is long, dark and depressing.

I'll grant you that it's a difficult conundrum. I know for myself as a parent, I've become very concerned with the fact that there is absolutely NO differentiation in Damian's current school, so that he may be a grade or two above his classmates in reading or science aptitude but won't be given a chance to stretch his brain even a teeny bit. But can it really be that hard in a liberal town to figure out a way to ease the ratio, to pick out smart kids from lower socioeconomic brackets who might not test well but sure want to learn and sure seem to soak up knowledge, and yes, you as teachers can in fact pick those kids out if you use your eyes and brains. What if you give those smart black kids (and in this situation most of them are black) a chance for that Level 5 class? Y'know, just to see if they can keep up? And maybe, y'know, to help them with some extra tutoring to, y'know, potentially give them a leg up FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES?

And this is a liberal town. I have to assume it's a question of, well, yeah, I'm liberal, but this is my KID. And like I said, I can understand that. To some extent. I too want the best education for my child. I may differ on what that means (hint: has less to do with test scores than with interactive, engaging teaching methods) but I want that too. But so does every parent. And for this ugliness to crop up in a town that prides itself on its diversity, well. Wow.

Um. Anyway. That's what I've been thinking about.

Posted by Tamar at 06:31 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack